chilling feet

chilling feet

Friday, September 29, 2017

South Pole: Changing of the Flags, Sunrise Dinner, and Life

(Sarah and I take a moment after the flag changing ceremony to pose for a picture at the ceremonial South Pole)
The winter has been long, and though we have truly enjoyed our experience at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole station, living in such conditions can be arduous. There are so many wonderful things to experience, like the auroras and night sky (which I talk about extensively in previous posts), but at the same time, Antarctica is simply not the kind of place that welcomes humans with open arms. We constantly joke that Antarctica is motivated by some sort of malevolent force to wipe out all human life, as if she is a living entity. It certainly feels like this at times. This energy that is innately a part of this ice covered continent, seems to bend its entire will at working against our existence here.

A quick example. We have giant doors (vehicle sized) attached to the LO Arch, where I work on the daily. These doors have been closed during most of the winter due to the inclement weather we can experience. We do, however, have to open these doors when we need to bring in materials from the outside storage berms, or for other various purposes. This past week, we spent the better part of a few days shoveling out the snow that sneakily seeps in through cracks of the doors. It wisps in, as the unstoppable force it is, and creates giant pillars of bulky snow on the inside of our doors. We cleared this entire area out and, rightly so, we were quite proud of ourselves (see last post about shoveling). The doors were swung open, smiles all around, and then the rest was cleared with a machine from the outside.

And then... Antarctica struck. "She took back her space," one of my co-workers mentioned. The winds picked up and the temperatures dropped down close to negative 100 F. This meant we now needed to close our doors because those temperatures could negatively effect some of the work spaces in our arches. Guess what? We could not close our doors due to the extra snow. So after a few hours of work to clear the area, we were finally able to close the doors we had worked so hard to open. Only a few hours later I walked back past these very same doors. The dreaded snow pillars were already reforming, a visible monument to Antarctica's relentless pursuit to remain untamed. I can hardly wait to work on opening those doors again - well, yes I can wait.  

(Our station manager says a few words before we took down the flags that had flown the long winter night)
One unique thing that happened in the past two weeks was the changing of the flags. The ceremonial pole is home to the flags of twelve different nations. These nations were all a part of the original Antarctic Treaty signed in 1959, and this is honored by their country being constantly represented by the flying of their flag at the ceremonial pole. Countries included: Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, Russia, England, and the United States. These countries all had some sort of investment, or interest, in Antarctica at the time of the treaty, and the treaty ensures certain protections for the continent as a whole (since then more countries have joined the treaty - click anywhere to read more about the treaty).

The changing of the flags was a fun event for us. We took the new flags out and each person was assigned to a particular flag. Our station manager made some comments on the significance of the flags and the countries represented, and then each person attempted the difficult task of removing and replacing the flags. It was challenging due to performing this task in the extreme cold. Our warmer and more protective mittens make such a task somewhat problematic, and I know the only way I could negotiate the metal clasps was to take those off. This makes for attempted quick work, fumbling with numb fingers, and I know I heard a little bit of frustration being expressed as those around me worked diligently to put up their new flag. In the end, we did manage to successfully hang all of the new flags that will soar for the rest of this year and most of 2018. As I did not have a designated flag, Sarah was nice enough to share hers with me. She was changing out the New Zealand flag, which has special significance to us. We lived there for a year, thus the title of this blog, and we absolutely love the country.

After the changing of the flags it was time to get inside and warm up our hands! 

(Working together to change out Sarah's flag)
Sunrise Dinner!

Our chefs really outdid themselves on this one. The theme was food trucks. They set up stations all around the room and even decorated in various ways. Viktor was serving drinks, Hunter was making Cubans, Sugar Bear was serving up some sushi, and Zak was making Indian food. We sampled it all and found that each person had truly made some delicious food. I think we ate pretty heavily off of the sushi bar, but we made sure to leave room for something special from the other chefs as well. It was definitely the best food we have had in a while!! Good job guys.

Each year there is a box o' goods that are shipped down for us all to open around Mid-Winter. Some of those things filtered out into the crew around this time, but some of it got sidetracked for various reasons until now. A table of various goodies (books, knickknacks, dried fruit, etc) was put out for anyone to take. One of the guys noticed there were some LED badminton birdies. He went and set up the gym for what would later be badminton in the dark with our new light up birdies. This dangerous...but mostly fun. There is a picture below that shows some of what it was like to play in the dark. Sometimes the birdie would turn off after being hit, making it impossible to return (other side cheers in victory, once it is the birdie is discovered on the other side of the net as no one could tell where it went). The real deal was making sure to watch your teammates, especially once the game included over half of the people on station, so as to not hit or be hit in the face by a racket. Lots of fun.

Overall a great night. Sarah and I finished it off by playing a game with some of our friends (also pictured below). Moments like Sunrise Dinner are a highlight for certain. They not only mark a moment in the winter as being a time passed on our way toward redeployment, but they also tend to lift the spirits of everyone on station (for the most part) as well. 

(Sugar Bear rocking out the sushi rolls - they really were delicious!)

One other memorable event was paired up with Sunrise Dinner. Traditionally each year the flags that are taken down are then raffled off to members who are wintering over at the South Pole. This includes the twelve flags already mentioned above, and then also two more American flags (flown in other locations on station) and the NSF (National Science Foundation) flag. It can be a big deal as you win a flag that has flown at the South Pole, and some people find that to be exciting. We certainly were thrilled about the idea of having one of the flags. Certain flags tend to be more desired than others, though it depends on the individual for obvious reasons. The American flags, Norwegian flag, and the English flag are usually the top choices. The Americans generally all like the idea of taking home one of American flags. There is historical significance for the Norwegian and English flag as the explorers, Amundsen and Scott, were Norwegian and English.

Unfortunately, even though we technically had twice the chance to win over a single person, we did not win a flag. It was disappointing but it was also fun to watch the enthusiasm of those who did win a flag. The Norwegian flag, pictured below, was claimed by our station manager. He is planning a trip to Norway when he leaves the ice and part of his journey will take him to see the boat the Fram, which was the boat Amundsen and his crew used to reach Antarctica on their way to the South Pole (it was also used in many other voyages in the Arctic). He asked if we would all sign the flag so he can present it to someone while he is in Norway. What a fun way to celebrate a little bit of the history about the South Pole as we prepared to eat some tasty food.

(The Norwegian flag ready to be signed by the station crew. Pictures of the Fram are hanging on the wall above the flag)

That is about it for our South Pole update for now. We have a few more events planned for the rest of the season, but for the most part we are through with the major events like Sunrise Dinner. As of today, September 30th, I have only thirty-six days left on the ice (it can always change). Sarah has roughly thirty-nine days left. It is so crazy that we are this close to being done with our time at the South Pole.

Well, I guess I better get back to shoveling snow. 

(The Materials Team poses for a picture. Steve was quite proud of his dress. Kim actually made it for him. He was the only one at Sunrise Dinner in a sundress. Go figure)

(Photo by Daniel Michalik - badminton in the dark)

(Photo by Daniel Michalik - ending our Sunrise Dinner night with a game)

(And yes, the sun is up completely now - really fun watching it come up. Soon it will be so bright we need to wear sunglasses again while working outside. Today is pretty close - not pictured here)

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Antarctica =s Lots O' Shoveling

The past few weeks at the South Pole have been filled with birthdays, departments lining up those last few jobs that need to be finished before summer, and people solidifying plans for when they leave the continent. We have all be waiting to get our official off ice date, which really only means a date when a person will leave dependent on weather and such, and as we get those dates we can finally confirm plans for after we leave. It can be a little difficult to plan such traveling around a date that can fluctuate a decent amount, but we are doing our best.

Sarah and I finally made a few of our purchases in regards to the quick stop off we are going to make in Australia for some diving. The plan is to dive the Great Barrier Reef and do some sightseeing before we shoot on back for Thanksgiving. We both love to dive and are very much looking forward to diving this particular part of the world. Mostly it will just be nice to get back in the water. By the time we leave it will have been mover ten months since we have been submersed in any water, let alone the ocean. Surprisingly we do not have a pool here at the South Pole (said sarcastically).

This week we finally got to see our team winter-over photo. Matt Smith and Hunter Davidson worked on making it what you see above. It is a few photos combined - the night sky on the right and the sun starting to come up on the left. We have missed being able to look up into the Milky Way, which did look almost as pictured here to the naked eye. Good work on the photo guys. 

Our materials team has been driving out to the storage berms in search of goods for various other departments. On the last trip we had to go pretty far out so we made a little detour to the "end of the world." We took some photos at this same location as the sun was beginning to set about six months ago, and so it was fun to take some now as the sun is beginning to rise. The colors the new rising sun has been pouring out over our white landscape have been quite nice to watch. Lots of purples, reds, oranges, and pinks. Pretty soon we will see the actual sun itself - that will be nice!

And oh the shoveling. The shoveling... As you can see in the picture where I'm about to crush Steve's head with a giant piece of snow/ice, the wind blows snow in through the cracks in the doors to our arch. When this picture was taken we had already managed to get about six to eight feet move from above where we are standing. This week we needed to shovel this all out of the way so we can then open the doors and drag the snow out with a machine. Needless to say I'm a little sore from all of the shoveling, but we got it done and our doors are open. It's nice to have some natural light pouring in through our open doors.

The final picture was taken at the end of the world also. Someone had fun taking blocks of ice and building a cairn type structure, which is actually really cool to find way out in the middle of nowhere. It is almost as if it is one last final warning to turn back before the vastness of the land before you.

The first picture is a Scott tent that one of the guys here set up so we could take some nice photos. It was pretty neat to see what a tent like that would be like set up in the snow. I think I prefer our station to the tent life as it did not seem quite as cozy.

Only a short time left before we leave. We will have our Sunrise dinner this weekend, a fun event and major marker of our time nearing an end. Pictures and stories will follow. 

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The Endless Night is Over: The South Pole and Some Sun

(Not the best picture but these are some of the first glimpses of sunlight)
Almost every day, I walk to work outside. It is a fairly short walk, and while there have been one or two days I was not happy about being outdoors, for the most part I am attributing this to being a big part of what has been getting me through the Winter. Even on the worst days, there has been something refreshingly nice about a little clean air and an abruptly brisk wake up. It is hard to feel asleep after a nice morning Antarctic embrace.

The best part about walking outside has always been the nighttime displays of astronomical delights such as auroras, the bright Milky Way, the moon (with some of its random displays as well such as moon-pillars), the Southern Cross, and other such wonderful sights. I have borrowed plenty of pictures from our shared drive and posted them on this blog in previous posts. They were all random and we never really knew when they would happen. There are the weather reports and even sometimes helpful alerts to let everyone know there was a massive aurora storm happening, but by the time a person can get suited up and out the door they were occasionally gone as quickly as they came. This is why a person just needs to get outside randomly as you just never know what might be happening out there.

As wonderful as it was to witness all of these phenomenon of the Antarctic night sky, nothing quite prepared me for my walk to work last week. I walked out of the back door from our berthing rooms as normal. I had one eye shut to help acclimate my eyes to the darkness more quickly. I was then arrested on the top of the stairs, as I began look around and see that upon the horizon was the faintest hint of sunlight! The sun had begun taking back a little bit of the Antarctic night. I felt excited - this meant we were one more step closer to going home! I felt a slight feeling of awe - how many people have seen the first rays of the sun as it starts to slowly creep back up over the South Pole after a long winter's night? I felt a feeling of... disappointment - as I looked around and took in the faint sunlight, I also looked up and noticed there was something missing. The Milky Way was gone!

I have been waiting for the sun to come back. We all have been waiting for this momentous occasion. Without the sun the weather will not be accommodating enough for frequent fights in and out of the South Pole. This drastic change in our South Pole experience is vital to fresh food, to departing, and to life. And yet there was a part of me that was inexplicably sad when I realized I could not gaze deep into the core of our galaxy's center any longer. I had grown so accustomed to taking quick looks up into the Milky Way on my walks to work, that now I felt a loss I did not anticipate. I looked desperately for my favorite constellation, the Southern Cross, and it was thankfully still there. But for how long? I knew this change meant the auroras would be less and less visible as the sunlight forged its way across the sky, and I was pretty sure I could deal with their loss. Yet there I stood, and mixed with all of my other emotions was an unforeseen sorrow.

Don't get me wrong. I am filled with a high sense of expectation and energy upon having seen the sun. It has revitalized a part of me that is ready to see family and friends, to travel, to eat fresh food, and to do all of the other things I have been missing while we have been at the South Pole. It may be the case, however, that we never return to this place. Looking back, it is likely that I have spent my last Antarctic night staring into the crystal clear Milky Way and contemplating the greatness of the Creator. I want to cherish these memories and hold on to them while they are fresh and bold in my mind. While the sun brings change and much needed revitalization, I am going to hold on just a little longer to the memory of the long Winter.

Having said all of that, I am immensely enjoying the sunlight and all it brings with it. Our station took down all of our window coverings this past weekend. One more fun sign to point to the nearing of the end of our time here. Though our windows have a heavy tint on them and we could mostly see only our own reflections for the first few days, there have been moments where we can see the glowing reds of the sun peering over the horizon.

We are all still alive. The sun has started the long sunrise back over the most southern place on this planet. Life is, I dare say it, good. I will say my goodbyes to the Milky Way and auroras soon enough.  Perhaps I need to find the right time or thoughts. They have left regardless. I guess I just want to wait a little bit longer.